Repairing Prometheus: Part 3 - "Science Hurts!"
The film would have more easily reached its potential if the characters weren't as dumb as rocks.
Prometheus was supposed to be one of the best films ever. Everything about it indicated that it would be a new classic of modern filmmaking: A talented director, with a great reputation for compelling science fiction films, a cast full of young and skilled actors, and a gigantic budget to allow for production values that skyrocket.
When the film hit the theaters though, there was nothing of substance to be found. The film was great visually, that effects budget was surely not wasted, but pretty much everything else about the film was painfully bad. This series of four articles looks into what could have been done to make the film work for a discerning sci-fi audience. Of course, expect lots of spoilers.
Good fiction narratives, in any medium, must have real characters, and real characters have dynamic emotions and verisimilar motivations. Not every character has to be solidly well-rounded, but there should at least be a few characters whose actions and motives make sense in the context of their background and environment.
Prometheus's plot has a lot of flaws in this regard, and while the science fact issues I mentioned in the previous article are the easiest to fix, they don't have nearly as big an effect on the film as these issues of character. Flaws in character design can pull an audience out of a film faster than anything else, and they might not even know why. Science errors might make an audience roll their eyes, but a poorly built character will shut down the suspension of disbelief faster than anything else.
The characterization flaw that is most pointed out by critics is that no one on the crew acts like a scientist. "Why were all those scientists so dumb?" was my main thought all the way home after seeing the film in the theater the first time. Granted, no one ever says that this particular ship full of scientists are the absolute best and brightest of their field, but they were hand selected for the mission, and with their titles, one assumes they all at least have graduated from a Masters program somewhere, so they should at least have some sense of how science works. None of them do. This is not hyperbole. Zero scientists behave like scientists in the film. If just one or two of these mistakes occurred, then perhaps one could believe that there was just a bad egg in the carton, but whole ship full of complete incompetents is too much. What do they do that's so bad?
First, putting a crew into suspended animation for a journey of less than three years is silly, at best. In any era, suspended animation will have to be a dangerous or at least uncomfortable proposition (the characters even allude to the potential danger during the waking up scenes), and would likely be reserved for missions of a much greater length than a few years, but that's not the part that makes it most silly. Whoever planned this mission threw a bunch of scientists together on a ship without first informing them of where they were going or why, or even checking to see if their personalities were compatible (they were not) those two years could have been used to train up the crew, let them get to know each other and their mission, perhaps even make plans and learn to get along.
None of the scientists think to do any surveying before entering the alien structure on an never-before-set-foot-on alien world. Real scientists would have done months of watching, measuring, and record taking before even leaving the ship. Part of this could be explained away by Weyland's impatience, and if it was the only poor scientific decision made, it would be fine. It's the pile of them that starts to add up quick.
More specifically, Holloway removes his helmet in an unknown environment on an alien world which he only thinks might be breathable. Everyone else around him, also all 'scientists' seeing that he did not perish on the spot, also remove their helmet immediately, even the biologist, who should know that there are plenty of things that you could breath in which take longer than 30 seconds to kill you. Then, later, when he starts to feel sick, he doesn't go get medical attention, he just hides it and bangs his fiancé instead, her health be damned.
In general, Holloway is incredibly impatient, though this is lamp-shaded in his dialog with David - whom he hates unreasonably- it's still very uncharacteristic of any scientist, much less an archaeologist, who is usually working with stuff that's hundreds of years old, at least, and takes years to give up its secrets. Unlike Weyland, hat Holloway gets impatient and desperate after a few hours of not finding anything about the origin of his own species on an alien world is strange, to put it mildly.
Fifield is supposedly a top-notch geologist. He even invented a new hi-tech mapping probe - to explore cave systems, I guess - which magically interfaces directly with the hologram machine on the bridge. Not only is this character a complete dick to everyone else, which I suppose is not necessarily counter to being a geologist, but he claims that he's a geologist "for the money", which I'm pretty sure any real-world geologist would simply laugh at. No one is a geologist for the money. Perhaps geologists become rock stars (pun intended) in the future for some reason, but that's not explained or even hinted at. Further, he proceeds to panic when presented with a slightly stressful situation, and gets lost in the structure that he just magically mapped.
Millburn is likely the worst. He's supposed to be the ship's biologist, and upon discovering a strange phallic beast in an alien temple, he treats it like a domesticated kitten, rather than like an undocumented biological sample. Especially after it displayed obviously aggressive stance and behavior by Earth standards. The appropriate reaction would have been to capture it safely for study, not reach out and try to pet it. There is no degreed biologist anywhere who would be dumb enough to act this way.
Shaw, our protagonist and another archaeologist, is almost as bad. When she decides to study an Engineer head she first grabs it haphazardly while running from a storm, which is already a pretty big deal since any real archaeologist would have first labeled, photographed, and exhaustively documented the head's location before retrieving it, but that one can be chalked up to the general expediency of the plot - watching an archaeologist work is pretty boring after all - but then she proceeds to place it on an examination table, and electrocute it. This is completely out of left-field, and has no explanation whatsoever. I mean, this might have made a little bit of sense if our already-revealed- to-to-be-dumb biologist decided that this would be a cool experiment, but an archaeologist would have measured, recorded, and preserved the sample only. Archaeologists are not in the business of randomly applying electricity to possibly valuable samples, just to see if they'll explode.
These are not the only examples, by far, but only the most glaring. In total, the crew of the ship act more like they belong in a startle flick, where a central premise of the plot is that the teenagers out at the campsite are so dumb they don't know how to react to a dangerous circumstance. When it's a bunch of kids being stalked by a serial killer out in the woods, irrational, unscientific behavior makes sense; when it's a group of scientists on the first expedition to an alien planet, that same behavior is completely inexplicable.
So what could have been done? Two things come to mind:
First, the writers could have deviced the issue. They explained away so much with odd plot devices, why not this as well? Perhaps something went wrong in the cryogenic chambers, and everyone got brain damage which made them forget most of their training and regress in maturity. I'd believe that could happen, and it would allow all of their actions to make sense. Perhaps David, the bad android even did it on purpose, thinking to sabotage the mission. This would then have to be explained in the plot, or at least hinted at, and not much else about the film would have to be changed to make that work.
That's sort of a cheap solution though, better would have been to completely rework the film by either actually making all of the characters teenagers who accidentally stumble across these ancient ruins, or by making the scientists act like actual scientists, but perhaps making errors (not the same errors, but they could make other errors) under pressure, which get them all killed. It might not have been as visually intense this way, but it wouldn't have been so terrible.
This issue with the scientists behavior is just one character issue, though it's a hefty one. I'll cover some more in part four of this article.